Why trust Apple in the cloud?

Apple's recent cloud services problems say a lot about the challenges of real-time services in the cloud. Namely, think twice about who you trust to store data and applications.

Lots of vendors have run into trouble with their cloud services, but the challenges faced by Apple last week should give some IT shops pause as they evaluate cloud computing.  

People would be reaming Microsoft a new one but because it's Apple ... they get a pass

Gordon Haff, cloud strategist, Red Hat

Apple's iCloud is a synchronization service that lets users keep data stored on their iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Mac products in synch. As 20 million or so end users launched the service for the first time, it didn't work as expected, and the backlash has been significant. 

Siri, a cloud-based voice activation service unveiled with the iPhone 4S, has run into problems as well, according to Apple support discussion boards. It is supposed to let users control maps, call up recipes, arrange meetings and send messages, all via their voice. Artificial intelligence researchers have been working on this technology for decades. So it's not surprising that Apple hasn't got it right first time.

However Gordon Haff, cloud strategist at Red Hat, said the problems Apple now has with Siri highlight a key issue with real-time cloud application usage in general. "It assumes you are always going to be well-connected to the Internet, and that's just a bad assumption," he said. 

The iCloud and Siri glitches are also classic examples of the network effect at massive scale, according Randy Bias, founder and consultant with CloudScaling.

"The trick with real-time applications is that the architecture must be designed for scale," he said. The lesson for enterprise IT was in rethinking the IT stack to service millions of users at low latency.

"It's not about plugging in more expensive hardware and hoping it will solve the problem," Bias added. He noted that Apple reportedly bought 12 petabytes of Isilon storage for a new data center facility in North Carolina. Apple has not confirmed these reports.

Red Hat's Haff added that end users overlook problems with Apple where they would not with other technology companies. "People would be reaming Microsoft a new one but because it's Apple and they make these 'magical' devices, they get a pass," he said.

He said users are putting "blind faith" in service providers that do not have much of a track record supporting services. Apple's history as a cloud provider is less than stellar; the immediate predecessor to iCloud, called MobileMe, was plagued with problems from launch.

One expert said it is notable that Siri is a service  that must talk to the network for everything; it does nothing locally on the device. People talk about devices becoming more powerful, but on the other hand more and more mobile applications are using the cloud for their processing.

For Siri, Apple appears to have decided to rely heavily on the cloud. So far this approach is not winning. "When they go wrong with this approach they go wrong in a big way," noted Geva Perry, consultant and advisor to cloud computing companies.

The trick with real-time applications is that the architecture must be designed for scale.

Randy Bias, founder, CloudScaling

Perry said  Apple, as a service provider, has transparency issues. There is no visibility for the consumer into how the company operates the service, which means users cannot make an intelligent decision on what to put in Apple's cloud. 

"We don't really know what's going on with Siri as Apple is not saying anything. Was it a massive load that they didn't expect; or didn't it behave as they expected, we don't know," Perry said.

According to cloud application testing experts Soasta, very few cloud performance issues are based on a lack of capacity, but rather on configuration, setup, design or implementation problems.

Tom Lounibos, CEO of Soasta said the app market's "dirty little secret" is that at least 75% of all Web and mobile apps go live without ever being load (scale) tested, despite the potential volatility and volume of today's Web traffic.

It's not trivial to do this kind of load testing before launching a cloud service, he said. Did Apple push the performance limitations of its service before the launch, or perhaps it relied on early adopters to show it the way.

CloudSleuth, a ranking of cloud providers, shows the uptime and response of major cloud service providers worldwide. Apple didn't make the cut of the twenty top providers.

And neither did it return calls for comment on this story.

Jo Maitland is the Senior Executive Editor of SearchCloudComputing.com.

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